Tag Archives: Steve Earle

Album Review: Steve Earle & the Dukes–So You Wannabe an Outlaw

Rating: 8.5/10

I’m not really sure I need to write any kind of introduction to this; I’m pretty sure Steve Earle has been introducing this quite well on his own, and that may or may not be taking away from the music. So I’m going to take the advice from Steve’s own comment, and let this be about the songs. What I will say is that he stated both that he wanted to make a record inspired by the outlaws, and more specifically, Waylon, and that this record would be about dealing with loss. And what we get is basically exactly that–the front half is filled with badass, renegade/outlaw material–or at least what we might think of when referring to that term–and then the back half adds to the validity of it all by taking us on journeys of heartbreak, loneliness, and loss, and in the end, you’re left wondering if this outlaw thing is really all that great after all, and perhaps second-guessing your dream. And in a way, that separates this record from all the others trying to be cool outlaw because it shows all the sides to the story, the glamor along with the pain.

That’s not to say there aren’t painful realities on the first half. IN fact, the opener and title track starts the album by explaining all the things you have to go through if you really want to be an outlaw, albeit in a pretty lighthearted manner. Willie Nelson appears here, which adds to the message and the overall coolness of the song. You also have “Lookin’ For a Woman” and “If Mama Coulda seen Me,” both of which Earle wrote for the show Nashville–the former is a restless heartbreak song where the narrator is trying to find a woman who “Won’t do me like you,” and the latter is about a prisoner who is thankful that his mom died before she had to see him in chains. All of this half, however, is pretty upbeat, and even though the material is dark, some of the glamorous side of being an outlaw still shines forth in the attitude and in the cool blending of country and rock instrumentation. This half comes to a brilliant, angry climax with “Fixin’ To die”–this song is told from Death Row, and I didn’t mean to compare it to Chris Stapleton’s song “Death Row,” but that’s what happened. I said before that Stapleton’s didn’t quite have emotion even though he belted it–I know a lot of people disagreed, but the point I’m making is that whether it came through or not, Stapleton meant that song to be sad. When this opens and Steve Earle bellows, “I’m fixin’ to die, reckon I’m goin’ to hell” and then adds, “I’d be tellin’ you a lie if I told you I was takin’ it well,” for me, that captures all the emotions, from anger to sadness to regret. It’s an intense story and definitely a great way to complete this more rocking front half of the record.

It’s the back half, however, that really makes this album shine and adds an authenticity to these opening songs. It’s one thing to sing about being an outlaw for the sake of it, but when you get to stuff like “This is How it Ends” and “You Broke my Heart” and see there’s a tender side to this story, it really adds something to the whole project. Steve Earle mentioned loss, and it is explored in every form here, from the heartbreak in these two songs, the former of which features Miranda Lambert, to the poverty and self-doubt in the excellent “Walkin’ in LA” to the closer, “Goodbye Michelangelo,” a tribute to Guy Clark. “Walkin’ in LA” features Johnny Bush, the writer of “Whiskey River,” and it’s one of the best songs on this whole thing, despite it not being the most flashy. It’s one of those rare gems where the melody, the lyrics, and the instrumentation all work together flawlessly to form an incredible piece of music. The melody and beautiful acoustic guitar play in “Goodbye Michelangelo” really add to that song as well. It’s a great way to close the album.

As much as I loved this record, I do have a couple criticisms. There are a few songs that felt like filler; “Girl on the Mountain” was sandwiched between “This is How it Ends” and “You Broke my Heart,” and so it stands out as the weakest heartbreak song of the three. At first, I really didn’t enjoy the pairing of Earle and Miranda Lambert, but that’s growing on me, mainly because it’s just such a damn good song. My initial problem was that Lambert is meant to be singing harmony, but sometimes she drowns out Steve. I’m starting to like it better because in doing so, she makes it easier to understand some of the lyrics. ON the front half, “The Firebreak Line” is quite a fun song, but it doesn’t necessarily add much. “News From Colorado,” the only subdued song on the front half, is also a little vague and underdeveloped lyrically. But all these are really minor, nitpicking criticisms, and overall, this record is pretty great.

So, in conclusion, this is a pretty fascinating album. First, you have the angry front half, and then you have the subdued, heartbroken back half, and together they tell a very good story. Steve Earle is a fine songwriter, and the natural grit in his voice just accidentally adds a lot to this album and the stories told. Every collaborator also brought something to the record. I mentioned there were some weaker songs, or perhaps even filler, but at the same time, it’s one of the few albums I’ve played in 2017 without a single bad track. Very nice, solid album. Give it a listen.

P.S. I’m not reviewing the deluxe version, but that also has four pretty awesome covers of songs previously written by Waylon, Willie, and Billy Joe shaver.

Listen to Album

“It’s Always the Songs”–What we Should Learn From Steve Earle’s Recent Outbursts

Ahead of his new album So You Wannabe an Outlaw, Steve Earle has not been afraid to speak his mind. IN a recent interview with The Guardian, Earle calls out, among other things, the current state of pop country and says that the mainstream is nothing but “hip-hop for people who are afraid of black people.” He also says that “the best stuff coming out of Nashville is all by women except for Chris Stapleton.” I don’t want to focus too much on this interview since that’s not originally what this article was meant to be about, but it adds new light to it and strengthens the point I was originally going to make here–Steve Earle is not afraid to be honest and share his opinion. However, the thing is, although it’s not overly common, bashing pop country is certainly not uncommon, and we’ve seen our fair share of artists do so over the past several years. The thing that makes Earle’s recent statements different comes in light of another interview, which before today had been the main focus of this piece.

IN another interview in Canada, with The Globe and Mail, when asked about Canadian songwriters, Steve Earle mentioned Colter Wall, citing him as “the best singer-songwriter I’ve come across in years.” Here’s where the interview takes an interesting turn.

I haven’t heard his new album yet, but I heard him [Colter] described as “bad Richard Buckner.”
Richard Buckner sucks. Richard Buckner is the most overrated songwriter in the history of songwriting ever. Girls liked him, because he stared at his feet. He’s a neanderthal. I know Buckner.
I’m quite fond of Buckner’s music. Particularly, The Hill (2000).
He can’t write his way out of a wet paper bag. Richard Buckner was nothing but a painfully alternative hipster’s darling. But I hate a lot of things people think are brilliant. I will not read Cormac McCarthy again. Technically, he’s one of the best writers I’ve ever come across. But I don’t think his intentions are good. I don’t think he likes us. I don’t think he likes himself. Actually, I think he likes himself just fine. That’s what’s so disgusting about it. I think he thinks the rest of us are pieces of [garbage].
Painfully alternative hipster’s darling, you say about Buckner. Can you explain that?
I don’t want to be a part of a culture that defines itself by what it hates. I can’t stand alternativism. I mean, I hate disco, but I have to admit there’s been some great art coming out of dance music.
But out of hate and alternativism comes great art. Punk rock, as a reaction to disco, for example.
Sure. But the stuff that’s great in punk rock are the songs. The songs hold up. The stuff lasts. Nirvana’s not Nirvana because of punk rock. Nirvana’s not Nirvana because it was different than hair metal. Nirvana is Nirvana because Kurt Cobain was a world-class songwriter. It’s always the songs.

First of all, I had never heard the name Richard Buckner before this interview, and let me tell you, after getting acquainted, Steve Earle is entirely correct, Richard Buckner sucks–but that’s beside the point. The point is, and it’s been strengthened today by his criticism of the mainstream, that he’s not afraid to judge the independent/Americana/alternative in the same way as what is popular. We’re all pressured by that in this independent country scene, to like everything Americana just because it’s not on the radio or isn’t considered mainstream. But let me tell you, a lot of it bores the hell out of me, and Country Exclusive was founded on a principle of honesty. When I said that, I didn’t just mean bashing the mainstream, and I get that there’s a certain problem with spending too much time unnecessarily bashing the little guy, but there’s also this elitist attitude in the Americana world that makes it seem as if you can’t criticize anything about these artists. Hell, there are albums I enjoy but have slight criticisms about in Americana, but somehow, if we say that, it’s a horrific thing. Criticism is meant to be constructive, and to share an opinion–and if the artist deems it necessary to listen, perhaps to make that artist better, but again, it’s just someone’s opinion. WE all find it easy to bash Nashville and pop country, and we all rally behind people like Steve Earle when they do the same. So why do we attack him for saying something negative about an Americana artist? I love that last point–“It’s always the songs.” Let it always stay about the songs. That goes for you mainstream fans afraid to like Jason Isbell, and for you independent/alternative/Americana fans afraid to like Chris Stapleton because he wrote some mainstream hits. Just let it be about the songs. They should, and will, speak for themselves.

Reflecting on: Steve Earle–Copperhead Road

Yeah, okay, so I’m going to refer to Steve Earle quite a lot in the next few days, so just get used to it. Ever since we heard about the new album, I’ve known I would do a reflection of Steve this week. The obvious choice would be Guitar Town–that’s the one album everyone seems to cite as his best, and it’s the album that Earle said inspired him to make this new record when he revisited it for its thirtieth anniversary. But Copperhead Road is the one I’m doing instead; for one, just because Guitar Town is more well-known, and also because the title track is such a signature song for Steve Earle and a timeless song in country music. It’s a song I’ve grown up hearing everywhere, and my final decision came to do this album when Brianna broke my heart by telling me she’d never heard that song.

Release Date: 1988
Style: country rock, almost like Red Dirt before we called it that
People Who Might Like This Album: fans of Texas and Red Dirt music, especially the harder-leaning stuff, maybe people who like stuff like Eric Church or Kip Moore
Standout Tracks: “Copperhead Road,” “The Devil’s Right Hand,” “Snake Oil,” “Nothing But a Child”
Reflections: All right, so this was cool for me, because I know some Steve Earle songs, but I’m not overly familiar with his albums. It wasn’t a first-listen sort of experience when I played Copperhead Road for this piece, but it also wasn’t something I knew like the back of my hand. What struck me that I’ve not really thought about before is the style; in 1988, you had stuff like George Strait and Keith Whitley and Randy Travis fighting for a more traditional sound on country radio, fighting to take back country from the more pop-influenced stuff–and then there’s this, which is just totally different from any of that. Nowadays, you get so many mainstream artists blending country and rock–some do it well like Eric Church and occasionally Kip Moore, which is why I mentioned them above, and some just release arena rock with no country influence. The point is, it’s normal; that’s basically what the entirety of Red Dirt music sounds like. in 1988, this was a very unique sound, and like I say, I’ve never really taken time to consider that fully.
I mentioned the title track, and now I have to say, if you’ve made it to this point in your journey without hearing “Copperhead Road,” I’m frankly a little shocked; it’s just such a classic, at least where I’m from. I heard it all the time growing up, at various events, bars, wedding receptions, etc. Anyway, it’s a fun song about a Vietnam veteran whose family made moonshine, and after the war, he uses that knowledge to grow and sell marijuana “down copperhead Road.” “Snake Oil” is another fun one; I’m reminded a little listening to this record that stuff can be fun and upbeat and still be well-written, a lesson mainstream Nashville could learn. But there are some serious moments too, like the closer, a stripped-back religious song called “Nothing but a Child.” It’s probably the most country one here.
I don’t think Steve Earle has always put out good music; in fact, I’m more excited for Friday’s release from him than I have been for one of his records in years. But those early albums were great, and you should check them out. And yeah, that goes for Guitar Town as well, even though I didn’t write about it.

Listen to Album